You’d have to live in a hole if you didn’t hear the news about Portland Trail Blazers Center Jusuf Nurkic breaking his leg in horrific fashion this week. My twitter notifications started buzzing right after the injury took place, and watching the video was almost enough to make me weak in the knees. I won’t share the video in this column because it’s horrible, but if you feel so inclined, you can look it up online easily.
Looking at the video, Nurkic came up behind a group of players at the rim who were working to either tip the ball in or grab a rebound depending on the team they played for. Nurk’s goal was to tip the ball in, but he came down (from the way it looked to me) partially on someone’s foot causing his lower left tibia and fibula to snap like a toothpick. From what I saw, the Brooklyn Nets did nothing to cause his injury. Everyone was just earnestly seeking the ball. As Nurkic lay there writhing on the ground in pain, the ref walked over to clear some space for him and tripped on the foot of Nurkic’s awkwardly laying lower leg. Just awful.
The following day, he underwent successful surgery to repair the bones in his leg, and was given great news that no muscle or nerve damage had taken place during the injury–what a miracle. The Trail Blazers will obviously be impacted as their star center is out for the remainder of the season, but I’m confident that with some hard work Nurkic will come back and have a long and successful career.
This injury was traumatic for the entire league to witness, and watching it happen I couldn’t help but think of the bigger picture for injuries across the league.
The NBA regular season is 82 games, and if your team is successful enough to make the playoffs there are another 28 possible games to play to finish up the Finals. Granted, each playoff series doesn’t always go to 7 games, but the increased level of competition during playoff games makes the schedule quite a bit more intense.
The 82 game schedule takes place over around 6 months, and when players aren’t on the court, they’re usually in the gym training or traveling to and from competitions around the nation getting little sleep. They may get a day or two break here and there, but the grind is every single day for them. This puts a tremendous amount of stress on their bodies.
Furthermore, it’s not enough to just come in and be an excellent shooter. Sure the Stephen Currys, and Klay Thompsons of the world are famous for their ability to sink a shot from practically anywhere on the court, but the Warriors are the #1 team in the league primarily because they play lock down defense each and every game.
Playing tough defense gains a player notoriety because, let’s face it, defense wins championships. However, players often have to consider the longevity of their careers if they want to play tough on D. Consistent physical contact on the court puts large amounts of stress on the body, and no matter how young a player is there’s only so much the human body can take.
Taking Nurkic as a prime example, he’s only 24 years old, and watching his leg break the way it did you have to wonder if there wasn’t already a stress fracture in the works. He was having the best season of his career, and he was working so hard on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Bringing in 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds on an average of 27.4 minutes per game, Portland relied heavily on their big man to take them to the 3rd slot in the Western Conference.
Nurkic’s size alone made him a defensive juggernaut under the rim, and so defensively he was a fundamental tool for the Trail Blazers to rely on to do the heavy lifting.
On the flip side, you look at players like James Harden who notoriously don’t like playing defense, and while that’s annoying to spectators like me who don’t just want to see a shootout each game, I can absolutely understand his position. Would he rather be known for being the best defender in the league or would he rather make tens of millions of dollars over the span of a long and injury-free career? If you ask me, I’m choosing the latter.
As we all know, Nurkic isn’t the only one who has dealt with a devastating injury as a result of physical stress. When Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL amid zero contact on his way to the rim in the 2012-2013 NBA season he was asked what could be done about all the injuries taking place. His answer was framed as a joke, but I could tell he was frustrated as he said the regular season schedule needed to be shortened.
The NBA is a for-profit corporation, but as a fan I’d rather pay more money for my tickets and see the NBA take the regular season schedule down 15-20 games. In my opinion, that would make the individual games more competitive, and we’d get to see our favorite players on the court more often rather than sitting out on the bench for a rest, or worse, out due to injury.
My feeling is that the NBA has a responsibility to create a working environment that is conducive to longevity, and shouldn’t put players in a position where they’re having to choose between excellence and health. Perhaps this will become a key topic for the National Basketball Players Association in their next agreement negotiation.